Oak Park got a little greener at Tuesday night’s village board meeting with trustees voting to reverse a decision by its recently retired forester to increase the space between trees in parkways.

New trees installed in Oak Park’s “urban forest” will be spaced 35 feet apart, rather than the controversial 50-foot minimum spacing requirement launched in 2009 by former forester Jim Semelka, who retired from the position late last year and took a new job in the private sector. 

Semelka told Wednesday Journal in January that spacing the trees further apart would allow their canopies to grow to their full potential, making them healthier and stronger.

“One of the things that dawned on me is that we tend to plant our trees too close together,” he said in January. “When they are too close together, a number of things happen. Trees compete for resources; they don’t cooperate. There’s only so much out there in terms of sunlight and rainfall and things trees need to grow.”

The 2009 change was not without its detractors.

Kathryn Jonas, an Oak Park arborist and private consultant who specializes in urban trees, served on the village’s now-defunct Oak Park Forestry Commission in 2009 when the tree-spacing change was put into effect.

She said in a telephone interview that residents have been lobbying to reverse the decision since it was first enacted. She said that in 2009 the forestry commission voted unanimously to keep the spacing at 35 feet. Oak Parkers have come to expect 35 feet between the trees, she said, noting that “everybody would like a shade tree in their parkway.”

“The minimum was always there so it assured people there would be a continuous canopy of shade [along the parkway],” she said, noting that the commission also disagreed with Semelka because parkway trees were never intended to grow into “specimen quality,” and they never reach their full growth potential in a parkway situation.

A recommendation from Public Works Department Director John Wielebnicki noted that the minimum spacing standard for other suburban communities ranges from 15 to 50, depending on the size of the tree. Spacing is set at 35 feet in both River Forest and Evanston; 25 feet in Kenilworth; 30 to 35 feet for ornamentals and 40 to 45 feet for large trees in Elmhurst; and 15 feet for small trees, 40 feet for medium trees and 50 feet for large trees in Glen Ellyn.

The village forester position has yet to be filled and public works said in its recommendation that it could implement either spacing requirement.

Wielebnicki could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jonas said the forestry commission at the time suspected that the change in tree spacing was made for budgetary concerns. In Oak Park, she said, it costs about $200 to $350 to install a single tree, depending on the caliper, or diameter, of the tree.

She acknowledged that the change in minimum spacing could increase the cost to the village, which installs roughly 400 trees a year currently, according to Jonas.

The report released Tuesday night at the village board meeting, however, said there would be no fiscal impact from reducing the spacing.

Contact: tim@oakpark.com

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